Not the End of the World
December 6, 2016
El Camino de Santiago is a collection of routes throughout Europe that pilgrims have been walking for centuries. All the trails lead to the 800-year-old cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, which holds the remains of the apostle, Saint James. In 2012, I completed the first 200 miles of El Camino de Santiago’s 500-mile French Trail, or the Camino, as it’s referred to by pilgrims on the path. In search of one last solo adventure before my husband and I took the leap into parenthood, the Camino gave me one of my most treasured chapters that I longed to return and complete.
However, instead of getting pregnant, I got cancer.
Symptoms appeared overnight. One Saturday in August 2014, back in the U.S. I biked 50 miles and woke up not feeling well on Sunday. I thought it was dehydration, but each day my symptoms got worse until I eventually went to my primary care doctor, who referred me to a specialist. By the time the appointment with a specialist came, I felt so terrible; I begged to be admitted to the hospital. Various tests were completed, all which came back normal. Then a CT scan revealed something very abnormal. Within minutes a doctor rushed into my room to tell me there was a mass on my pancreas, but he did not think it was traditional pancreatic cancer. I was transferred to another hospital where a surgeon completed a biopsy that revealed I had a rare, cancerous, metastatic pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.
The only possible cure was surgery where they would remove the tail of my pancreas, spleen and ablate the tumor in my liver. I had a distal pancreatectomy and splenectomy, recovered for six weeks and felt pretty good — until my first post surgery scan when more tumors were found in my liver.
What followed was seven months of chemotherapy, medication-resistant nausea, irregular heartbeats, terrible digestion, blurred vision and fatigue that would keep me bedridden for most of the day. And those were just the physical effects. Emotionally, mentally and spiritually, I felt depressed and defeated. Before cancer, I was the epitome of health. I ate well, competed in half marathons and triathlons, didn’t smoke and rarely drank. How could I be 34 and have cancer? I could not accept this was my life and wished multiple times a day to trade places with anyone else. I would look at strangers and wonder if they knew how lucky they were to be free and have their whole lives in front of them.
During these difficult months, I had two saving graces. First, the caring and accommodating team at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. On the worst days, my oncologist, Dr. Emily Chan and her team made time for me. When I came in, I was always greeted with a “Hi, baby,” by Fannie at the Front Desk. Everyone from the staff at check-in to the phlebotomists to the nurses always treated me with empathy, respect and, most importantly, love.
My second saving grace was I stayed positive because deep down, my strong intuition told me I would survive. I’ve always been someone who had to persevere in life, a comeback kid, a scrappy underdog. I was going to do everything in my power to not allow cancer to be an exception.
After a few scans with disappointing results, slowly, but surely, the cancer began responding to treatment. Doctors wanted me to do a few more rounds of chemotherapy, but only after I had a liver resection. So, I underwent another major abdominal surgery, recovered for five weeks, resumed chemotherapy and completed my last treatment on Christmas Day, which was the best present ever.
After a few months, I began feeling like my old self again and knew I had unfinished business in Spain. One of the many life lessons cancer taught me was if you want to do something, you’ve got to do it, NOW. No one is guaranteed tomorrow and concluding your goal statements with the word “someday” is risky business.
With two clear scans under my belt, I booked my plane ticket, bought hiking equipment, began physical therapy with a backpack and on May 18, 2016, I found myself back on the Camino.
For the first week on the trail, I followed my plan, which was to have a therapeutic, spiritual, solitary experience. On the fifth day of walking, I reached La Cruz de Ferro, a cross marking the highest elevation on the trail. At the base of the cross, pilgrims leave a rock from their homeland to represent the releasing of a burden.Tears flowed as I threw the rock that I had picked up outside Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center on my last day of treatment. I got my wish and I was free.
And the next day I met Kevin.
For days our paths crossed on the trail or in the small villages in the evening. We seemed to be on the same schedule. Then the day of a steep ascent, we started talking and never stopped. Together, we climbed a mountain in the rain, sharing our stories and laughing the entire way. At the summit, we witnessed those behind us, struggling and gasping to make it to the top. Proving that the physical and mental mountains we climb are less difficult when we have someone by our side.
From this day on, we were a team. For several hours each day we walked and talked about everything from our partners to friends to family to political issues to celebrity gossip. And sometimes we just walked, observing moments of comfortable silence like we were old friends. But what we did most was laugh. We laughed at each other’s mishaps. Laughed at our stories. Laughed at other pilgrims. Laughed at the insanity of walking across a country. Laughed until we cried or until our stomachs hurt or until one of us would snort. We would laugh because we were so tired. Sometimes, we even laughed at laughing or for no reason at all. One day, after a fit of uncontrollable laughter, it occurred to me I was getting a dose of what my life had been missing since my diagnosis. I didn’t need to process the trauma of cancer. I had been doing that for 15 months. I needed to reclaim joy, laughter and fun, because, let’s face it — cancer is the opposite of fun.
After several days of laughing, on June 1st, we walked through the tunnel gates into Obradoiro Plaza and found ourselves staring up at the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. We hugged, cheered and then dropped to the ground, resting our heads on our backpacks. I had wanted to do this alone, but the moment would not have been the same if I didn’t have someone special by my side.
Once it sunk in that we actually made it, Kevin and I entered the cathedral through the holy door, which is only open every few decades. 2016 was randomly declared a holy year of mercy by Pope Francis, which, was one of the many signs from God I received on the Camino. We walked up the stairs to the statue of Saint James, rested our heads on his shoulder and said what we came to say. This was another moment, where tears arrived as I thanked him and God for my healing. The next day we attended the pilgrims mass. Eight robed men swung the butafumeiro, over our heads. This is a 5-foot, 176-pound, silver incense holder that pours frankincense smoke over the parishioners. It was stunning and emotional, since we were told this only occurs at Friday evening’s mass. “So, why are they swinging it,” Kevin asked.
With tears in my eyes, I replied, “Because we’re here.”
However, I decided I couldn’t stop walking once I arrived in Santiago de Compostela. Many pilgrims continue to a little oceanside village, Finisterre, which is the place once thought to be the end of the world before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. I shared my intent to continue with Kevin and without hesitation he said he was in. So, shortly after mass, we left Santiago de Compostela and walked for four more days, arriving at a seaside cliff on June 5th, Cancer Survivor’s Day. The divine symbolism was undeniable and most certainly not a coincidence — both Finisterre and cancer were not the end of the world.
Legend states pilgrims should burn something of importance at the end of their journey to symbolize spiritual completion, so at sunset, we started a small bonfire. I burned a few momentos, one of which was the map I was given at the Pilgrim’s Welcome Office when I first started El Camino de Santiago in 2012.
As I watched the sunset and the map disintegrate, I could not help but reflect on the unexpected course my life had taken since I started the Camino four years earlier. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have a plan or map for how our life’s events should unfold. Yet inevitably we will encounter mountains, roadblocks, and get lost. I would have never imagined cancer would be on my life’s map so early in the journey. I am grateful beyond words it was not an exit, but a detour to a slower, more thoughtful, scenic route filled with curving paths, majestic landscapes and rewarding mountain crossings. And when we get to the other side, when we walk through those gates, when we are staring at our final destination, how sweet it is to have had a friend by our side to laugh with, hug and celebrate what an incredible journey it has been.
Writing About Living With Cancer
Stacie Chevrier is an active participant in the Express Yourself: Creative Writing Series collaboration between the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise & Public Policy and Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center. The program is free for anyone impacted by cancer, regardless of where cancer care is received. The workshops are led by the 2016-2017 Curb Creative Writing Fellow at Vanderbilt University. For information about future writing programs, contact (615) 322-9799.
About the Author
Stacie Chevrier is a recovering type-A corporate climber who made a big life change after being diagnosed with cancer in September 2014. She now spends her days focusing on writing, traveling, yoga and defying the odds as a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor survivor. In 2017, Stacie and her husband, Fabien Chevrier, plan to walk the Portuguese Camino with Kevin and his partner. She writes at www.staciechevrier.com
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